Company labour flexibility strategies in The Netherlands: an institutional perspective

Publication Date01 October 1998
AuthorJan C. Looise,Maarten van Riemsdijk,Frans de Lange
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Labour flexibility
strategies in The
Company labour flexibility
strategies in The Netherlands:
an institutional perspective
Jan C. Looise, Maarten van Riemsdijk and Frans de Lange
University of Twente, The Netherlands
The academic debate on labour flexibility has been going on for quite some time
already. However, this does not mean that the content of the debate over the time
is the same. On the contrary, we see a clear shift in the focus of the attention of
the flexibility researchers. In the beginning of the 1980s, the debate on labour
flexibility had a strong ideological character. A lot of commentators during that
period – especially those who were related to the trade unions – thought of
labour flexibility as a common strategy of employers and managers to restore
the power in the companies which they lost during the 1970s. Later on, in the
1980s, we see the rise of (normative) models with respect to (labour) flexibility,
like for example the model of the “flexible firm” put forward by Atkinson (1984,
1985) and in our country, Bolwijn and Kumpe (1990) and Volberda (1992). In the
beginning of the 1990s it became clear that the flexibility argument “suffered
from a number of theoretical and empirical shortcomings” (Blyton and Morris,
1992). However, since that date, quite a lot of work has been done with respect
to the last point. On the one hand there has been a large number of publications
on national and international trends in labour flexibility, based on quantitative
data from surveys. Examples of these are Brewster and his colleagues from
Cranfied University (Brewster, 1995; Brewster et al., 1994; Mayne et al., 1996)
but also by others like Casey (1991), Bielenski et al. (1992) and, in our own
country, Delsen (1995, 1996). On the other hand, we see a growing number of
case studies on flexible work practices, from which researchers try to get more
qualitative insight into the things that really happen within companies.
Examples of these are Hunter and McInnes (1992), Geary (1992) and with us,
Warmerdam (1992) and Vos and Buitelaar (1996). A recent trend is to try to
combine quantitative and qualitative research methods with the aim of
connecting information about what is going on with insight into how this is
happening (see also Mayne et al., 1996). Our research must be seen as an
example of this last approach, although the most emphasis has been laid on the
gathering of qualitative data.
With respect to the theoretical shortcomings, less progress has been made.
Most emphasis has been laid upon the question of whether there is a link or not
between labour flexibility and HRM strategy. At first, Brewster (1995) and his
colleagues (see Brewster et al., 1994) could not find such a link, but more
recently (1996), they discovered that at least in some countries like the UK, Employee Relations,
Vol. 20 No. 5, 1998, pp. 461-482,
© MCBUniversity Press, 0142-5455
Norway and Sweden there is a link between flexibility and HRM. But in
countries like Germany and France again they could not find such a link. In our
opinion it is a little surprising that Brewster et al. do not try to give an
explanation for the shift in their findings and the differences between the two
groups of countries. They suggest that these be due to the imperfect data.
However we think that there might be another important explanation, namely
the (changing) institutional context. In our view, especially in Europe, the
institutional context plays an important role with respect to the HRM policy of
companies and so, also, with respect to the way they deal with labour flexibility.
This is also the explanation for the large differences in flexibility patterns
between the European countries that were found in earlier research (Brewster et
al., 1994, 1995; Delsen, 1995). However, as a result of economical, technical,
social and political developments, the role of the institutional context is
changing. In some countries, like for instance the UK, Norway and Sweden, the
role of the institutional context might have changed already so far that
companies now are able to follow their own strategy. In other countries, like
Germany and France, this might not yet be the case and the role of the
institutional context is still dominant in the field of HRM and labour flexibility.
In our view, this might explain the differences between the two groups of
countries and between the earlier and more recent results.
In this paper we focus on the connection between company strategies with
respect to labour flexibility and the national institutional context. However, the
question here is not if there is any influence of the national institutional context
on such strategies, because we know there is. The question we want to deal with
here is how that institutional influence works. Or more precisely: how the
interaction is between company flexibility strategies and the national
institutional context, because the institutional context itself also is not fixed but
changes over time. The Netherlands is an interesting case with respect to this,
because of the fact that the role of the institutional context with respect to HRM
traditionally was very strong, but has changed radically in recent years.
However this does not mean that there remains no role at all. On the contrary, it
seems that instead of a dominant or controlling role, this role has been
transformed to a suppor tive and stimulating one – with quite a lot of success for
the Dutch economy: instead of the Dutch disease they now speak about the
“Dutch miracle”. So the main questions of this contribution are:
(1) What kind of labour flexibility strategies are followed at company level,
for what reason and what are the effects on company performance and
the position of the employees?
(2) How does the institutional context, especially at national level, influence
the company strategies and vice versa?
In this paper we try to answer these questions by using theoretical insights and
empirical data our department has collected by studying subjects such as
external labour flexibility (De Lange, 1996; De Lange and Van Riemsdijk, 1997;
Steenbakkers, 1994); functional flexibility and teamwork (De Leede, 1997;

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